Dabbawalas forced into odd jobs amid pandemic, drive autos for sake of their own lunch

Rights commission summons Chief Secretary over plight of dabbawalas who are finding it difficult to make ends meet; a few of them recount their plight.

If suburban trains are Mumbai’s lifeline, the dabbawalas are its pulse, beating purposefully in the veins of the city’s working class. Now struggling to make ends meet, they have asked the state government if they are ‘essential’ enough to be allowed in the trains. Taking cognisance of their plight, the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission (MSHRC) has summoned the state Chief Secretary for a hearing on September 17.

COVID-19 Lockdown: Mumbai’s Dabbawalas fall on tough times



Forced into odd jobs in the wake of the pandemic, the dabbawalas had earlier approached the state government demanding financial assistance. They said the only help that ever came was from social organisations and independent donors, which wasn’t enough for close to 5,000 dabbawalas who brought lunch tiffins to the tables of over two lakh office-going citizens.

Though most offices have opened to 30 per cent capacity, dabbawalas haven’t been able to resume work due to a lack of permission to travel by trains. Only those who operate on their bicycles are able to deliver meals. Mumbai Dabbawalas Association president Subhash Talekar reportedly said that never before in the 130-year-old history of dabba service has there been a six-month break.


Social worker comes to their rescue

It was social worker Dr Yogesh Dube of Bhartiya Vikas Sansthan who first approached the MSHRC with dabbawalas’ appeal for rehabilitation. “Many of them are struggling to make ends meet due to the lockdown. Even their basic needs are not fulfilled. I decided to file the petition with the MSHRC after reading about their plight in newspapers,” said Dube, who then called various dabbawalla organisations to understand their problems and decided to demand their basic rights.

The people who delivered our lunch boxes in offices

The people who delivered our lunch boxes in offices

The director of Dabbawala Enterprises Private Limited, Sharad More said the business is in a shambles. He said, “We are trying to provide rations but it’s not sufficient. As the lockdown is being lifted, they are coming back to work, but are not allowed to board the trains. How does one distribute lunch boxes then?” he remarked, adding that they are not able to pay rent or school fees for their children either. “It’s a very tough situation and the government should intervene,” More said.

Such struggles have forced a few dabbawalas to switch professions. Rohidas Balu Sawant from Aarey colony delivered dabbas prior to the lockdown. “I have three children to feed and educate. I waited till May but the lockdown continued. Finally, I approached Bajaj Finance and bought an auto rickshaw in June. I am earning better now but not happy with this job. I want to go back to delivering dabbas,” Sawant said.

Babaji Shivekar from Andheri West also started distributing rations on a rickshaw during the lockdown to earn money. His father Kondiba had quit the dabba delivery business after working for 50 years and settled in his village near Pune in 2005. Shivekar continued his father’s legacy but was forced to look for an alternative during the lockdown. “I used to earn Rs 20,000 earlier, but this new work barely pays. The problem is that 90 per cent of us are not educated and don’t have any other skill,” he said.

While Bharat Muke from Versova decided to drive an auto rickshaw after seeing his colleagues, his brother chose to become a delivery boy at Zomato. “I sought a loan for the rickshaw from a relative and have been paying him Rs 4,000 every month,” he said.

After serving as a dabbawala for almost 15 years, Datta Shivekar started driving an auto rickshaw in June. “I pay a relative Rs 4,000 as rent for it. My elder brother Shanker and father Thindu served as dabbawalas in Mumbai for 20 years. I never thought I would have to do anything else to earn a living,” he said.

Dube’s petition states they are now deprived of basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. It demands financial help, social, medical and educational security, insurance, special welfare measures, and setting up of a coordination committee to address their grievances. Chief Secretary Sanjay Kumar, however, could not be reached for a comment over phone and text messages.

What new normal looks like

Masks, face shields, screens

Coronavirus is still very much here. But cities and nations have started ‘unlocking’ or trying to resume and reopen places and activities that were severely hit by the Covid19 pandemic. On September 14, school children in Italy, Portugal and some schools in Zimbabwe went back to school for the first time since March 2020. In some other countries like Germany, Vietnam, Serbia, schools re-opened earlier, but teachers and administrations are keeping a close watch. Eating out also now looks very different. PPE kits are a new normal for getting a haircut. In metros, every other seat is crossed out and weddings are going virtual. In this photo feature, we give us a glimpse of how the world has found its own ways to define the ‘new normal’ as nations try to recover from the body blow countries got as coronavirus hit people and the economy. Photo by Chethan Shivakumar/ BCCL

25 MPs test positive for coronavirus

At least 25 MPs have tested positive in mandatory tests conducted before the start of the 18-day Parliament session. The photo, taken in the Lok Sabha shows what new normal looks like in Parliament. MPs are wearing masks, face shields and there is a screen separating seating in the House. Photo: ANI

Social distancing in Kolkata Metro

Every other seat has to be left vacant in the metro and has been marked with a cross. This picture was taken inside the Kolkata metro. Photo by Kaushik Roy/ BCCL

New way to say ‘I Do’

Wedding guest Christian Wilmot livestreams as Gary Cheng and Sakiko Honda say their vows. They got married on July 4 at Marylebone Old Town Hall in London, England. Wedding venues were shut for months before that in the United Kingdom. Photo: Getty Images

London Wedding

So what if all their friends couldn’t join in. They live streamed the wedding so that their friends could still catch them exchanging vows and virtually join in the celebrations. Among the many changes to our ‘new normal’, weddings too have gone virtual. Initially, wedding venues were shut in the UK for three months. Photo: Getty Images

Schools reopen in Zimbabwe

A student has her temperature checked at the entrance of a private school in Harare, on Monday, September 14, 2020. Zimbabwean schools have reopened for examination classes after nearly six months of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. AP Photo

Italy: Schools reopen after 6 months

Primary school ‘Acquedotti’ reopened Monday, with four of its classes moved to a parish to increase spaces and guarantee social distancing between pupils. This is the first major step in Italy to normalise after schools shut in March as the coronavirus literally brought the country into a shutdown. For 6 months, schools were shut as Italy’s healthcare system grappled with the deadly virus. In this photo, a teacher welcomes pupils at the San Policarpo parish as Italian schools reopened, in Rome on September 14, 2020. AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

Social distancing in Serbian School

School children practice in PE class on the first day of the new school year on September 1, 2020 in Jagnjilo, Serbia. Serbia went into a lockdown in March and eased restrictions in May amid public discontent over confinement and despite warnings from doctors it was too early. Photo: Getty Images

Can you guess what this is?

Don’t let the shades of grey colour your imagination. These are socially distanced lines of customers who are waiting in the queue to get into an Ikea store in Warrington in the United Kingdom on June 1, 2020. The store opening saw large queues of people and traffic on adjacent roads as it reopened after the pandemic lockdown. The furniture and housewares chain reopened its stores across England and Northern Ireland subject to several restrictions, keeping its restaurants closed and asking customers to shop alone. Photo: Getty Images

Vietnam allows domestic tourists to travel

Vietnamese tourists pose for photographs on a boat touring Ha Long Bay, after the Vietnamese government eased the lockdown following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, on May 31, 2020 in Ha Long, Quang Ninh Province, Vietnam. Though some restrictions remain in place, Vietnam has lifted the ban on domestic travel, certain entertainment facilities and non-essential businesses to revive its economy. Photo: Getty Images

Bengaluru Temple gets ready

The Social Distancing boxes, sanitising and spraying of disinfectants on idols of deities were in full swing on September 12 at Kailasa Vykunta Mahakshetra temple in Rajajinagar hoping relaxation will be announced by State Government to open the temples for devotees. Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K/ MMCL

Temples start preparations for new normal

The Social Distancing boxes, sanitising and spraying of disinfectants on idols of deities were in full swing on September 12 at Kailasa Vykunta Mahakshetra temple in Rajajinagar hoping relaxation will be announced by State Government to open the temples for devotees. Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K/ MMCL

Berlin Open Air Theatre

Visitors watch a movie in a sold out open air cinema on June 05, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. As part of the easing measures concerts, cinema and other open air events are allowed from June 2 in the German capital, with a maximum of 200 people. The lock down measures have largely eased nationwide, with stores, restaurants and cafes open again, though under certain restrictions to avoid people crowding together. Photo: Getty Images

Zero contact ordering at restaurants in Delhi

Contactless ordering will be the new normal. Some restaurants are ready with zero contact ordering, where customers can use their smartphones to scan the menu, use QR codes to order and pay as well – all the ensure that there is minimum interaction with anyone outside of the diners they have come to the restaurant with. Photo by Anindya Chattopadhyay/ BCCL

Tenny Sandren in Italy

Tennys Sandgren of the United States wears a face mask as he waits for the coins toss ahead of his qualifying round match against Joao Sousa of Portugal during day one of the Internazionali BNL D’Italia at Foro Italico on September 14, 2020 in Rome, Italy. Photo: Getty Images

Restaurants open in Chile

A waiter, equipped with a protective face mask, face shield and disposable gloves serves guests at the re-opening of a restaurant in Santiago, Chile, on September 2, 2020. The Chilean Ministry of Health has authorized the reopening of restaurants with outdoor dining options and the reopening of other non-essential businesses in some areas of the Chilean capital. AP Photo

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